The Possible is about the future of buildings and cities and the ideas and innovations that can help them function better. In this issue we explore the limits on city density, the future of education, next-generation construction materials and whether we’ll ever be able to design a totally recyclable building. Chicago architect Gordon Gill, designer of the 1km-tall Kingdom Tower, talks about his responsibilities and regrets, and psychologist Naomi Shragai investigates what’s really happening when project teams collaborate. In our Connected Thinking section, contributors contemplate how drones will shape development in Africa, the seismic threat to Asia’s megacities, hospital design in a post-antibiotic world, how architects can ensure the wellbeing of site workers thousands of miles away, and why engineers should read more philosophy. It was designed by Supermassive and the cover illustration is by Noma Bar.
They may be as vast as an Amazon distribution centre, as energy-hungry as a steelworks, and as critical as a power station or major hospital. Yet many of us will never have seen a data centre – or never noticed one. And that’s exactly how their owners want it. That’s because data centres are the internet. They are “the cloud”. They are the huge, humming sheds through which every email, Google search, online transaction, Netflix movie and Donald Trump tweet must pass as it circles the earth. Just a few minutes of downtime could be disastrous for the companies, governments and financial markets that rely on them, so data centres are designed to be constantly operational, and protected from every conceivable threat, natural or manmade. Anonymity is the first step in a rigorous high-security philosophy that leaves nothing to chance. In this feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I spoke to the property professionals working in this specialised, sensitive market.
What this fortress approach can’t ensure is the cyber-security of the data within – arguably a much greater risk, as illustrated by the unprecedented cyber-attack last October that disrupted services across Europe and the US. After all, if you had the choice of mounting a Mission Impossible-style break-in, or hacking from the comfort of your armchair, which would you choose?
“I’ll be honest: the gnomes keep me up at night worrying,” admits Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, or CASA, at University College London. “Is it academic? Do academics do gnomes?” On the desk in front of him sits a 3D-printed gnome of the garden variety, unpainted and not yet fitted with the Bluetooth transmitter that will replace its feet. “Probably not,” he concludes. “It’s probably frowned upon.”
CASA, however, does do gnomes. When it’s finished, this one and 29 clones will sit in solar-powered mushroom homes amongst the shrubbery of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. They will be the most visible elements of a vast technology infrastructure underpinning the cutting-edge “Smart Park” project, which will have ubiquitous wifi, superfast broadband and a dense mesh of sensors monitoring everything from temperature and humidity, to the movement of crowds and even their emotions. Over the next decade, CASA will collect and analyse this data in order to understand and transform how people use the space and, looking further ahead, plan the smart urban districts of the future. I wrote this article about it for the Bartlett Review 2016.
What will cities look like when we can get everything we want from the comfort of our homes? I explored the future of shopping districts in an online world for The Possible, a thought-leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produced for global engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. This 12-page infographic-style feature also became the basis for a series of client events hosted by the company’s specialist retail team. Design by Supermassive.
Longstanding client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff wanted to raise its profile as a thought leader in its chosen fields, so the global marketing team commissioned my company, Wordmule, to produce a new client publication.
The result is “The Possible”, a 68-page print magazine about the future of buildings and cities and the innovative ideas and technologies that can help them function better. It has an initial circulation of 10,000 targeted at a senior audience of architects, developers, contractors, city planners, government agencies and institutes, and building users worldwide.
To inform the magazine’s content, and the company’s thought leadership strategy more broadly, we conducted 30+ in-depth interviews with the company’s clients and partners around the world, as well as speaking to specialists and experts among its 36,000 employees. We then planned, commissioned, wrote and edited the articles, and managed the project throughout, working with creative agency Supermassive and printer Greenshires. The first issue of The Possible was published in November 2016, and the second is due out in spring 2017.
The first issue included articles by a diverse range of global contributors, as well as in-depth features on adapting healthcare and the built environment for an ageing demographic; modular construction and encouraging creativity in the workplace, and a stunning cover illustration by Noma Bar.
Professor Heinz Wolff works in a building that bears his name, surrounded by a lifetime of his own inventions – machines for Antarctic explorers, astronauts, soldiers, divers, people with disabilities, people with arthritis. That’s where I went to meet him in August, to find out about his latest project: not a machine, but an entirely new economic system designed to solve the problem of how cash-strapped Western societies can afford to care for a much larger elderly population. Now aged 88, the father of bioengineering still comes to Brunel University in west London five days a week to continue his pioneering work. But for the first time in his long career, he doesn’t think technology can provide the answer – a shift in thinking that he has compared to a religious conversion. “I came to the conclusion that if you’re having to care for a large number of elderly people who were not necessarily in total control of their cognition, then technology wasn’t going to be an awful lot of use. What you wanted was humanity.”
Flooding will become the new normal during the 21st century, as sea levels rise and rainfall becomes more intense due to global warming, and cities sprawl along coasts and rivers.
Half a billion people are affected every year, and this could quadruple by 2050, according to the EU’s Global Flood Observatory. Reinsurance broker Aon Benfield has calculated that flooding was responsible for $27bn of economic losses in 2015, often in areas that never used to flood. That was a good year – the annual average loss over the last decade has been $48bn.
In this brilliantly illustrated cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I looked at how the economics of property will have to adapt to a much wetter world. By 2070, Kolkata and Mumbai will be the two cities whose populations will be most at risk, while Miami, Guangzhou, New York and Kolkata will have the most to lose in terms of assets.
Spending on flood protection is often targeted at the highest value land or assets, while the poorer the community, the less able it will be to recover from a disaster. One contributor warned of the creation of “flood ghettos”: “It’s not just the immediate flood area, it affects the surrounding areas, and the wider community drifts down the economic scale. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of less investment and fewer opportunities.” Meanwhile, another flood surveyor is going back to college, to do a master’s degree in a rather different field: how adults learn. “Getting people to understand flood risk means changing their perceptions and logic,” he explains. “I’m intrigued by why people make choices that are not in their best interest.”
At the first-ever UN “Buildings Day”, held at the Paris climate talks in December, there was unprecedented scrutiny of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with property and construction, and the sector’s role in averting catastrophic climate change. By 2050, emissions from the built environment must be reduced by an estimated 84 gigatonnes – the equivalent of taking 22,000 coal-fired power stations offline – if global warming is to be limited to less than 2°C.
That will take a radical rethink of the way we build and refurbish, but also of how properties are funded, valued, procured and managed: the World Green Building Council is calling for nothing short of a “global market transformation”. In this cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I investigated what that’s going to look like.
This is the property sector’s “tobacco moment”, one expert told me – the equivalent of the government reports that made an incontrovertible link between smoking and ill-health in the early 1960s: “The fundamental difference between the Kyoto Protocol [in 1997] and the Paris Agreement is that today no one can say they didn’t know there was risk.”
The summer issue of Concrete Quarterly is packed with curiosities: an insurers’ office with a Soviet missile as its centrepiece; an Oxford faculty building compared to a marshmallow, a spaceship, a stack of CDs and a pile of washing up; a ruined Spanish castle controversially refurbished as a block of concrete; and a French music school deliberately splattered with paint. We also ran an exclusive interview with AHMM’s Paul Monaghan about how the practice managed to win the 2015 Stirling Prize with a school largely built in a factory, and how he persuaded Barking council’s housing department to love concrete again…
My company Wordmule has just produced a second issue of This is Concrete, the bespoke 24-page magazine we created for The Concrete Centre last year to tie in with their activities at the Ecobuild exhibition. Their themes were pretty diverse this year, from how to design buildings to last in a changing climate and create high-performance housing for people of all ages, to the thorny issue of accurately calculating the embodied carbon of building products. So we pulled it all together under a “sustainability for life” theme, with a special cover illustration by our very talented designer Nick Watts. Details of The Concrete Centre’s activities at Ecobuild were contained in a pull-out section, to extend the magazine’s shelf life beyond the event itself. Which fits in quite neatly with the theme, come to think of it.